Biotechnologies for better yields

Family farmers in developing countries must have access to agricultural biotechnologies, keeping in mind the need to improve yields and maintain sustainability in the face of climate change and a growing population, experts feel. 

During an international symposium hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva said, “We cannot lose sight that biotechnologies, knowledge and innovation must be available, accessible and applicable to family farmers, including small holders.”

Around 500 scientists, government representatives, civil society organisations, academia, farmers’ associations and cooperatives participated in the symposium.

“The symposium sought to explore the proven and available agricultural biotechnological tools and products that are useful for attaining sustainable food systems and nutrition for smallholder and family farmers,” Chikelu Mba, an officer in FAO’s plant production and protection division, told Down To Earth.

Family farmers contribute immensely to food security and global poverty eradication. In an interview with Down To Earth, Policy Specialist with FAO India, Bhaskar Goswami, said, “Globally, more than 90 percent of farms are either operated by an individual or a family, producing about 80 percent of the world’s food and occupying around 70-80 percent of farm land.”

Currently, smallholders do not have access to many products because they are expensive, and therefore, not affordable, Chikelu added.

Stress on low-tech applications
The FAO symposium emphasises on a range of biotechnologies that can help bring about high yields, improve nutrition quality and add value to the productivity of crops, livestock, fish and trees.

Several “low tech” applications such as fermentation processes, use of bio-fertilisers, artificial insemination, production of vaccines, disease diagnostics, development of biopesticides and the use of molecular markers in developing new varieties and breeds can benefit family farmers to a great extent.

Though there is stress on the use of biotechnologies to improve yields, the symposium is not about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to the FAO chief.

“An appreciable number of people have concerns about the potential risks that GMOs pose to the environment (through geneflow) and human health (through allergies). However, no such harmful effects have been recorded over the 20 years of commercialisation of GMO crops. It is in recognition of such concerns that the global community devised the Cartagena Protocolon Biosafety of the Convention on Biological Diversity which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of GMOs,” Chikelu said. He added that there was no recorded evidence that GM crops affect pollination by bees.

The symposium highlights three main themes: climate change impacts; sustainable food systems and nutrition; and, people, policies, institutions, and communities.

When it comes to developing countries, focus on optimal agricultural output while conserving natural resources at the same time is a must. It is necessary to integrate adaptation, vulnerability and resilience with agricultural strategies to fight climate change risks. Biotechnologies play a major role in achieving the aim.

Though crop biotechnologies have developed over the past century, progress has mainly taken place over the past 20 years. There have been mixed experiences with crop biotechnologies in developing countries.

Interspecific hybridisation is a technique that allows the combination of favourable traits from different species. It has been used successfully in the development of inter-specific disease-resistant Asian rice and New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties.

Biotechnology also offers important tools to diagnose plant diseases of both viral and bacterial origin. While biofertilisers are used to augment the nutritional quality of crops biotechnology offers important tools to diagnose plant diseases.

Climate change risk
There is a growing concern that climate change will affect food production hard. In an interview with Down To Earth, Aziz Elbehri, senior economist, trade and markets division, FAO, and editor of the book Climate Change and Food Systems, had said how food availability would be climate driven in the future.

Climate change “affects all of us, but especially the poorest and hungry people,” Graziano da Silva had said at the time of CoP 21, underscoring how smallholders and family farmers are always “in the front line”. According to the FAO, droughts, floods, storms and other disasters triggered by climate change have risen in frequency and severity over the last three decades, increasing the damage caused to the agricultural sectors of many developing countries and putting them at risk of growing food insecurity.

Extreme weather events such as floods and droughts can cause extreme food shortage all over the world. The prevailing El Niño phenomenon has caused crop failure, pushing around 10.2 million people in Ethiopia into food insecurity.

Success stories from around the world
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, by 2050 crop production must increase by 60 percent globally and by almost 100 percent in developing countries to meet the burgeoning food demand of a growing population of around nine billion people.

Sustainably increasing production is not sufficient to meet the increased food demand as up to 30 percent of food produced is either lost or wasted along the value chain.

“Agricultural biotechnologies can contribute to efforts towards achieving sustainable development agenda of Zero Hunger by 2030. But, they do not constitute a panacea. They must be used as complements to other tools that constitute part of the toolbox for solving specific local problems. Zero Hunger by 2030 is a global challenge and requires local solutions. Need-based solutions to local problems must be devised; in some cases agricultural biotechnologies would be part of the solution while in other cases, more apt solutions may exist,” Chikelu said.

Giving a boost to cassava production in Africa
A native of Latin America, cassava is one of the staple food crops in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the most important source of nutrition for millions of poor people. The crop, a rich source of dietary calories for smallholder farmers and their families, can be easily cultivated without fertilisers. It offers immense potential for enhancing the income and improving the livelihood of subsistence farmers.

Developing superior varieties of cassava in Africa will benefit from increasing the genetic diversity of the breeding materials. There is a rich diversity, including wild relatives of cassava, found in South America.

The National Root Crop Research Institute in Nigeria pioneered the use of cell biology and molecular markers in 2004 to introduce desirable traits of the South American germplasm into the African cassava crop. It is estimated that the improved variety can enhance the yield in Nigeria from the average 14 tonnes per hectare to 25 tonnes per hectare.

Improving teak plantation in Malaysia
Teak, a valuable tropical hardwood, is widely planted in Asia, South and Central Americas and Africa. Teak has low seed yield per tree which creates a problem for making germplasm available for smallholders and other tree planters as well as for improving the quality of wood.

In Malaysia, the Sabah Foundation Group has been testing high-quality teak clones using nursery and micropropagation techniques since the early 1990s.

Micropropagation, growing plant tissue cultures in laboratory conditions, is used to clone superior teak trees with desirable traits (fast growth, straight trunks, minimal branching and high heartwood to sapwood ratio).

Micropropagation is also useful for growing root crops. For instance, disease-free sweet potatoes based on tissue culture have been adopted on 0.5 million hectares in Shandong Province in China, with yield gains of 30–40 percent.

In Kenya, micro propagated disease-free bananas were adopted by more than 500,000 farmers over a 10-year period.

The increased availability of high-quality teak planting has contributed to intercropping systems based on teak and other cash crops such as rubber, coffee and cocoa, which immensely benefit smallholders.

Detection of viral diseases in shrimp
Techniques allowing detection of viral diseases have led to the reduction of losses in shrimp farming. The use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR)—a tool to make more DNA until there is a sufficient amount of the viral DNA for detection in the laboratory, has been introduced in India where shrimp aquaculture is mainly carried out by small and medium-scale farmers in villages.

Farmers were given kits for collecting and preserving DNA. Since 2002, efforts to support shrimp farmers in disease control and coastal management have led to significant improvements in their income level and reduced disease risks. An analysis from Andhra Pradesh shows that farmers, who adopted better management practices for their shrimp stocks, witnessed high profits and low production cost.

The project has been highly successful in forming a self-help movement of farmers–from only five farmers who first adopted it in 2002, the programme reached more than 1,000 farmers in 30 aquaculture societies by 2007.

(Views expressed are personal)
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